When Children are in the Crosshairs: a Faith-Based Response to American Sniper

“When Children Are in The Crosshairs:
A Faith-Based Response to American Sniper
All Souls Bethlehem Church
Rev. Tom Martinez
February 1, 2015

The Conversion of Saul (i.e., Paul)

        9 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
      10 [Then] Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

— Acts 9:1-19

       There’s a powerful scene at the heart of the controversial movie American Sniper, the Oscar-nominated film directed by Clint Eastwood that stars Bradley Cooper as the real-life Navy SEAL, Chris Kyle. While providing protective cover for an advancing platoon of Marines on patrol in Iraq, Kyle shoots and kills a woman and a young boy, two of his 160 confirmed kills.
       It’s a disturbing, provocative scene, used in most of the film’s trailers. As audience members we want to believe these two deaths meant something, that Kyle was justified in shooting this woman and this child. After all, we were attacked on 9/11 and are only “taking the fight to them, so we don’t have to fight them here.” That’s how Kyle sums things up. Somehow it doesn’t seem to matter that Iraq had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11, or that we invaded and occupied a former ally without provocation.
       I can’t help imagining how Texans would react if a foreign power had invaded the US under President Bush, assassinated him and occupied the country. Would the average Texan cooperate with an occupying power? The emergence of an armed militia of “insurgents” would surely be inevitable. Would its women and children be part of the resistance? Imagine say a North Korean sniper overlooking a North Korean patrol going house to house in a Texas suburb. A mother and child decided to die rather than endure the occupation, Would the North Korean sniper be justified in killing the woman and her child?

       It seems so clear when you look at it that way.
       Maybe that’s why in telling Kyle’s story Clint Eastwood left “politics” out of the picture. He seems to have immersed himself so completely in Kyle’s worldview of that whether we had a right to be in Iraq at all becomes somehow irrelevant. Embassy bombings and the collapse of the Twin Towers are conflated to create an us vs. them mindset and, once in Iraq, it goes without saying that this is “them.” Kyle was ordered there. He’s a good guy, braver and tougher than most, and for that reason inspiring. And yet there’s something unsettling about the shooting of a child and then his mother. On a human level, you sort of feel like, “How has it come to this? How is it possible that this is what we feel the need to be doing in the world?”

       War is like that. It bends and breaks all reasonable expectations. Despite knowing that, it continually rises up like a flooding river. No matter how many sandbags we frantically stack up we find ourselves immersed in horror—or our soldiers do. We know the pattern: it begins with an escalation of tensions, a closing off of diplomatic solutions, euphemistic talk of “all options being on the table.” Then suddenly it’s on: the deafening noise, the unimaginable suffering, death and horror. All semblance of morality is lost as primal forces take control. Women are raped. People are tortured. War is hell.
       I heard a reporter talking about the war raging in Ukraine. He remarked that the refugees fleeing the region sounded like all the refugees he had interviewed over the years. They said “it felt like the end of the world.” What stood out for him was the body of a middle-aged corpse, “a well-dressed woman,” still sitting upright on a bus, still clutching her purse.
       We are gradually growing more conscious of the horrors of war, despite its prevalence. Over a million people took the streets in opposition to the invasion of Iraq. President Bush famously said he wouldn’t be influenced by “opinion polls.” That seemed an odd statement but it was only two years after 9/11 and the desire for vengeance, to make someone, anyone pay for what “they” did to us, was overwhelming. One US official later conceded that, “we attacked Iraq because we could.”
       Now over ten years later with the war having been officially declared over it’s as if we’re waking from a dream. Iraq and Afghanistan are in ruins, forever teetering on the brink of implosion, propped up by a process so expensive its been declared classified so as to keep the actual cost a secret. But we all know it’s costing us billions and ultimately trillions of dollars. What comes after a trillion, anyway?
       Meanwhile twenty-two soldiers a day take their own lives. And we have a new term for PTSD, or rather an entirely new category has been created. It’s called “moral injury.” I attended a Red Cross sponsored training recently given by some Vets and a military chaplain. The important distinction, they explained, is that PTSD is about fear. A person is traumatized by a catastrophic event and certain things trigger a fear-based reaction. But moral injury results from having done things that so fundamentally violate one’s basic moral make-up (things like shooting or running over children), that they result in a deep moral wounding.
       There doesn’t seem to be much point in talking about the alleged justifications for the war in Iraq. Despite the implicit message of American Sniper, Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. We invaded the country without provocation, without justification, based on flawed “intelligence” that they had weapons of mass destruction we now know they never had. That was clear a few years into the occupation, yet for some reason we still have ten thousand troops there a decade after our invasion. It’s such an overwhelmingly depressing situation most people prefer to retreat to their ideological shelters. Liberals say the war was a colossal mistake and leave it at that. Conservatives say we should honor the troops for their service and trust our leaders who know more than we do. And what of the hundred thousand lives lost, the tens of thousands of soldiers seriously wounded? These questions rattle in the air like a nagging wind chime.

       Chris Kyle never really had the luxury of exploring those questions. He entrusted himself to a system and devoted himself to it fully. But by making a film about his life, Clint Eastwood has taken the horror of war and basically achieved what television did for Vietnam, he brought Iraq into our living rooms. It’s one thing to know that terrible things happen in war and that our soldiers are “somewhere out there” fighting battles on our behalf. It’s another thing to be looking through a sniper’s scope at a child and thinking, “Yeah, I’d better kill him.” Suddenly we feel a little bit of the moral injury we are inflicting on our troops by blindly entrusting them to our leaders, politicians who are bought and sold by corporations and its Siamese twin, the military industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about.
       The depth psychologist Robert Johnson says about that all great myths both diagnosis a culture’s ills and point in the direction of a cure. I would argue this is true of all great works of art and, despite its flaws, I would rank American Sniper among them. The film’s diagnosis our cultural malaise is clear: we are the Empire. We are the ones knocking down doors and dragging families out into the dark in the middle of the night. The film itself doesn’t condemn these actions but it doesn’t have to. If you think for two seconds about how wrong it was that we were there in the first place, the recognition of our role as invaders saturates the film.
       But its power doesn’t stop there. By focusing on Chris Kyle it forces us to recognize that we have become a nation of assassins. We not only kill foreigners abroad, we’ve even started taking out some of our own citizens. Yeah it sounds weird but we’ve begun assassinating Americans. The really weird thing is that it took Dirty Harry to point out that maybe we have a little problem here, and he did it by telling the story of one of our most successful trained killers we’ve ever produced. So the problem, as I see it, is war without end, death without victory, moral injury without morality. We are drunk on our own power and yet powerless to do anything about it. So that’s the problem, which I think the film does a fairly decent job of summarizing, right up through Chris Kyle’s death at the hands of a disturbed Vet at a shooting range.
       The more challenging task is to unearth the healing insights contained within the story. As a minister, I suppose it’s not surprising that I find hope in the flashback scene in which a young Chris Kyle is in church, listening to a sermon. While the preacher tells the story of St. Paul, Chris takes a Bible from a pew. (We later learn that he kept the bible with him, even in Iraq.)
       I got the impression Eastwood used this scene to touch on Kyle’s faith, one strata in the bedrock of his all-Americanism. But I can’t help but wonder if the preacher’s words might also serve, intentionally or not, as a source of spiritual illumination in this very dark time. Much like the protagonist in Shawshank Redemption who conceals his tool for tunneling out of prison inside his hollowed out Bible, the idea seems to be that there’s something important contained within these pages.
       It’s actually quite astonishing that the story the preacher’s exploring, that of Paul’s conversion, basically describes someone who’s going house-to-house terrorizing people who have done nothing wrong! This is precisely what the Marines were doing while Kyle provided protective cover. Only in the story of Paul’s conversion he has a profound spiritual experience which has a radically transformative effect on his way of being in the world. He makes a complete break from his life of violence and aggression and begins to live according to an entirely different set of moral guidelines and an entirely different understanding of the world.
       Prior to his conversion he’s a lot like most of us, certain of the accuracy of his moral vision, set in his ways, determined to carry out what he sees as right, no matter if people have to get hurt in the process. If it involves arresting and persecuting people, so be it. It’s hard to imagine a more apt description of our sweeping surveillance, rendition and torture program. But this is pre-conversion Paul (or Saul).
       Before beginning his new life however, he spends a few days in deep mediation, coming to grips with his experience and still suffering the effects of the blindness which followed his literally blinding vision. What are we to make of this? It seems likely that it serves the same narrative purpose as the other New Testament stories of blind persons having their sight restored: they point to a deeper way of seeing, one more in line with the way Jesus sees.
       An obvious example of this would be the way Jesus “sees” those who are suffering physically, who then as now were forced to the margins of society. These individuals would have been invisible to most first century inhabitants of Palestine, much like homeless people are often “invisible” in modern urban life. There’s nothing new or unusual about the invisibility of the marginalized. What’s so unusual is how visible the people on the margin were to Jesus. He not only saw them, but he saw them as having value, as being persons worthy of conversation, deserving of touch, and healing. Clearly this is a different way of seeing the world.
       If we take Paul’s conversion as a process whereby he gained the ability to see this way, too, then it makes sense that he would simply abandon his role as murderous persecutor. How could he possibly behave that way toward other human beings? It makes no sense and, once he saw that, he simply stopped, freeing himself up to then become the catalyst for this new way of seeing, as we have noted already, eventually bringing the Gospel to the furthest regions of the then known world.
       Historian of Religion Rene Girard has argued persuasively that Christianity is distinctive in its capacity to empower people to see all of life from the perspective of the victim. Some have taken issue with Girard on this point by noting that the death of Socrates (500 years before Jesus) is also told from the perspective of an innocent victim. Whatever correlation we find between the two stories (an evolving consciousness perhaps), the bottom line is the same. In both instances we have a story about the execution of an innocent man told sympathetically, so that we see very clearly that the execution is wrong. In the case of Jesus, the New Testament tells the story not once, but four times. And in the context of the Gospels, the crucifixion is combined with a powerful body of teachings that directly challenge the tendency to project our evil onto others:

➢ Take the log out of your own eye before you take the spec of dust out of the eye of your neighbor.

➢ Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.

➢ You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye,” but I say turn the other cheek.

       As Girard sees it, the story of Jesus’ death illustrates the way of the world. Violence is contained in part by gathering up our frustrations and venting them in explosive bursts upon selected victims. Examples of this are lynchings and public executions (Girard argues that the crucifixion is the ultimate example). Our executions have moved indoors but still function in this way, allowing politicians to gleefully crow about being “tough on crime.” As Jesus saw clearly, all of this is made possible by the projection of our evil onto others, who we then label savages or monsters or whatever. Then we kill them. The result is a sacrificial catharsis in which all that is wrong with the world is projected onto an individual or sub-group, thereby allowing the community to vent its fury and achieve homeostasis. Think of the infamous photographs of large groups of whites looking smugly at the camera after a lynching.
       It’s a strange and tragic twist of fate that Chris Kyle, a purveyor of so much American violence, was himself the victim of a violent crime. In a way this gathers up any doubts as to the moral justification of our violence and baptizes them in the sacred waters of sacrifice and victimhood. Now Kyle is the victim. Perhaps that’s fitting. One could certainly argue that given the Bush administrations exploitation of 9/11, all of our servicemen and women suffered along with the citizens of the countries we have attacked. And through his devotion to helping other Vets after his service, Kyle’s journey does resemble that of St. Paul, who went from killing to serving peacefully.

       I believe Christians today must ask how the transforming power of Jesus’ admonition to confront the evil within plays out culturally and historically if we, like Paul, truly seek to remove the scales from our eyes. This is not to say there aren’t very real terrorist threats in the world. Rather it is a challenge to see our reckless imperial quest to subjugate the Middle East (not to mention Central and South America) in order to protect “American interests.” Do we really want to live in a world in which we feel okay about invading other countries so that our highly trained snipers can kill anyone who resists, women and children included? We don’t even have to invade anymore if we don’t want to. We just use drones to take people out as if life were one big video game, sometimes assassinating American citizens (and often killing women and children along with our “targets”). It strikes me as sick that part of our President’s weekly routine involves going over the “kill list.”

       While working on this sermon I happened to stumble upon a documentary by Tom Shadyac, whose claim to fame is having directed Ace Ventura (a whacky comedy that helped launch Jim Carey’s comedic career). Something about the description of the documentary, I Am, caught my eye so, in part to take a break from thoughts of snipers and war, I threw some popcorn into the microwave and sat down for a break.
       I learned that after the staggering success of Ave Ventura, Shadyac had a bicycle accident resulting in chronic pain so severe he contemplated suicide. At the time he had just purchased two mansions in Beverley Hills, but he even before the accident he had experienced a profound sense of emptiness. Having achieved the American Dream—wealth, professional success, not one big house but two—he realized it wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be.
       Then he had his accident, which plunged him into a deep pit of existential despair. Much like Katie Byron (The Work), whose journey out of depression resulted in a powerful new methodology for healing, Shadyac’s journey out of the pit also functions as a powerful vehicle of spiritual liberation. His film I Am is spawned a new philanthropic Foundation (http://www.iamthedoc.com/the-foundation/) and a movement of like-minded people across the globe who see in Shadyac’s journey an archetypal plan for the journey all humanity must take if we are to avoid our own extinction. Shadyac singles out six different luminaries and asks them all two questions: what’s the biggest problem we face and how can we fix it? These simple questions lead him on a wild intellectual and spiritual odyssey generating a transformative Gestalt of where we are (fragmented, violent, afraid), and where we ought to be (compassionate, open, cooperative).
       Of the many powerful themes and insights the film offers, one that struck me concerned the widespread impression that we live in a world of fierce competition epitomized by “the survival of the fittest.” While the most cursory glance at the natural world confirms this is partially true, the film makes the point that Nature is also overflowing with examples of mind-blowing feats of cooperation (Shadyac uses footage of flocks of birds and schools of fish moving as one organism to make the point).
       And there’s a beautiful exploration of the wonders of the human heart. Scientists interviewed in the documentary note that there’s a wealth of information to be gleaned between human heartbeats—that our emotional states (be they fear or compassion) generate different patterns of information to the brain. Contrary to the popular perception that the brain functions like a master computer running the body, they argue that the truth involves a more complicated and reciprocal process in which information flows from the heart to the brain and back again. When we feel fear, our cognitive functioning contracts so that our thinking is actually impaired. When we feel compassion we are functioning in our optimal state, open to the world and to others. The celebrated Rumi translator Coleman Barks affirms these findings with a beautiful line from Rumi who wrote, “that same force that tells the rose to open has done that to me, here, in my chest.”
       Perhaps this is “the Way” of being in the world Jesus was inviting us to experience. Deal with your own issues before you worry about what your neighbor is doing. Be not afraid. Love everyone, even your enemy. When you are persecuted, and you will be, rejoice for in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you. It is an invitation to a way of being characterized by great spiritual strength that paradoxically expresses itself in radical physical vulnerability. That’s why we refer to it as the way of the cross.
       This is of course the complete opposite of armoring up, locking and loading, invading and killing. In American Sniper one of Kyle’s commanders is giving out instructions on the firing range, telling the men that as snipers they will learn to fire in between heart beats, so as to avoid having their aim impacted by the beating of their own hearts. It is a sad commentary on the state of our society that this is what we are doing with the space between heart beats.

       But we are a young species just beginning to understand our actual place in this vast universe. To buffer us from the vastness of it all limited but utilitarian frames of reference and ideologies have arisen that have given shape to our existence. Gradually as the truthfulness of new discoveries prevail our view of the world evolves, so that now most people recognize, for example, the Earth is orbiting the sun.
       The problem is, as American Sniper forces us to see, there are highly destructive repercussions to some of our ideological assumptions. These assumptions (sometimes referred to under the umbrella of “American exceptionalism”) are deeply rooted and contain great force and momentum. To even begin to see the larger reality beyond our culture’s veil is like turning around to face the sea just as a large wave is breaking in upon you. Shadyac had to reach the pinnacle of success and then suffer great physical pain before he was able to see through (like the Apostle Paul) the veil of his cultural world. This is why Jesus’ teaching is for those “with eyes to see and ears to hear.” It’s not immediately self-evident but rather, as the story of Paul illustrates, it is a particular way of seeing deeply that comes in the wake of an opening of the heart.
       I know that considering this ethical path is terrifying. “What do you mean I’m supposed to love my enemy? Am I supposed to love ISIS?” we ask, afraid of what this might all mean. We forget that ISIS didn’t exist prior to our destruction of Iraq. I’d imagine Jesus fielded similar questions in his day, after all there were many attempts on his life and he was eventually killed. Gladiatorial Rome was no picnic.
There are always going to be those who have yet to go through a conversion of heart, indeed, as a species we are barely beginning to see that we are delicately bound together in an incredibly intricate interdependent web of existence of which we are only a part. It’s so much easier to draw boundaries and build walls and “circle the wagons” in a defensive posture. As newly self conscious creatures it is still an awesome and potentially overwhelming experience to open to the universe as it truly is. To do so with love and compassion is to risk being devoured by armies driven by fear. That seems to be one of the lessons of the New Testament. Jesus said that those who follow his path or sure to be persecuted. Paul went on to write the rest of the Bible in chains and its generally assumed that he, too, was executed.
       So to those who says non-violence is unrealistic, I agree. It’s unrealistic if your goal is to acquire or sustain power (personally or politically) in the material world. But if your goal is to open your heart to a life of compassion, then as King and Gandhi and Romero (to name but a few) all demonstrated quite conclusively, it’s possible to take a stand for love in this kill or be killed mad world in which we find ourselves. What more powerful symbol can there be for this way of being in the world than the cross? In this way Jesus is perhaps one of the great realists. He looks out at us from the cross with love, saying, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”

       I want to close by noting the deer hunting scenes in American Sniper which naturally brought to mind, The Deer Hunter, the winner of Best Picture in 1978 about war which delves far deeper into the problem of violence than American Sniper. Perhaps because there was no 9/11 to justify Vietnam, its vapid justifications were worn so thin people saw through to its rotten core. This is most palpable in the film’s closing scene, when the group of friends, reunited after the war, sing a heartbreaking rendition of “America the Beautiful.” They’re sitting down to a meal and someone starts humming, then they all begin to sing, a cappella, a hauntingly beautiful epitaph, a final farewell to the innocence of a nation.
       I went back to it remembering that it, like American Sniper, had two deer hunting scenes. But in The Deer Hunter there’s an evolution. In the first hunt Robert De Niro kills a deer. But in the second, after having served in Vietnam and experienced the horror of war, when he has the perfect shot he hesitates, then aims high and intentionally misses. That powerful film burned its way into our memories with its harrowing scenes of Russian roulette, a masterful symbol of our struggle with violence if ever there was one. I end with The Deer Hunter as it contains a powerful lesson of its own: sometimes the best shots miss their mark.

        May it be. Amen.